BJA Samuel has produced a film of exemplary beauty. One that defies classification because in the strict sense of the word it is not a documentary. It is more an epic and visual airborne poem to the planet that we not only inhabit but have constructed for ourselves
Your film is aptly called Earth Symphony, aptly because it appears to be a planetary celebration. «A day in the life of our celestial home», if you wish, but apart from that celebration was there any other motive or motives for shooting a film like this which somehow defies categorisation?
The film attempts to take a wide view of the earth. I intended to create a portrait of the earth that placed mankind within the context of the earth as a whole. I was influenced by the ‘city symphony’ genre of silent film where rhythms and edits are dictated by music and the hours of the day. The genre is part documentary and part avant-garde in style. They are also simultaneously celebratory and critical and seem to view the cities as a living whole made up of many moving parts.
How long did it take you to shoot and to edit it? Also, how difficult was to get permission for filming certain images, particularly those of cities, ports and beaches plus how did you get the satellite images because those are impressive?
The film took roughly 5 months to edit together. The film is comprised entirely of copyright free footage collected from the Internet. It took a long time to collect the footage and create a flow and rhythm with it. The footage was shot entirely by talented amateurs with access to drones. I was extremely picky about quality. Using the vast wealth of footage out there gave me access to an incredible breadth of footage and allowed me to show a wider view of the earth taken by an enormous array of talented people from all over the world. You could say that I crowd sourced the footage.
The footage of space is from NASA. It has been made available to use copyright free, it’s really spectacular and all more beautiful for being real.
The film is full of outstanding and gorgeous images; some of my favourites are those of the constellations at night, with you capturing the actual rotation of the earth in a visually poetic way. How contingent was the actual filming? There are a few «recurrent themes» like water landscapes, cities, clouds choreographies, deserts and mountains but how different came to be the final product compared with its original conception?
The amateur photographers who shot that footage really did a great job. Many different camera operators from many different locations filmed each shot including the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way passing overhead. I chose the shots based on how they communicated the earths rotation against the constellations. The aim was to give a sense of the motion of the earth in orbit, which is simultaneously awe inspiring and humbling.
As I collected the images I began to form them into a whole in the edit and I allowed my feelings and intuition to dictate the edits as well the music, which was integral to the tone of the film and flow of the cuts.
In a film with no narrative and just mere images and natural sounds, music -as you obviously know- becomes a vital component. Reading the credits at the end of Earth Symphony it appears that you went for a very eclectic choice: Zbigniew Preisner, John Taverner, Avro Part but also Tchaikovsky, Malher and Bach. Did you ever consider a narrative voice or maybe poems about the natural world to accompany the images? How much was that choice an aesthetic decision? In other words: did you think human voices would have distracted us from the beauty and message of the images?
I never considered using voice over or poetry. I feel cinema works best when meaning and themes are implied through images, sound, music and juxtapositions through edits. To use voice over would also alter the tone. The idea was to create a portrait of the Earth without giving special prominence to humans, so to allow a human voice into the film would be to create a human centric tone to the film.
There are outstanding images where the camera seems to be moving away from or towards different landscapes. The epic beauty of many of those images could be read by some like an elegy, i.e. that of a world that might be disappearing in front of our very eyes. Was that idea part of the message you wanted to convey? And if not, what was or is the «message» you want to share with your viewers?
You are right that a part of what I wanted to communicate was the transitory beauty of the earth. Earth Symphony is not primarily about the environment but I wanted the film to allow reflection on the state of the ever-changing world we live in. The earth is beautiful but ever-changing place and we are an agent for that change and to our own demise. I wanted to express some of that.
I mentioned the word epic. The scale of the photography is not only visually arresting but also gorgeously abstract most of the time. However that abstract aspect of it -of a world where the ugly side of the human footprint on our planet is mostly keep out of view- could be seen as way of bypassing the issue of the ecological danger we are now facing. Those images of ecological degradation are not completely omitted in your film because for example there is the sequence of the mountainous rubbish dump which is very telling. Nonetheless, there is a kind political neutrality when you have lovely epic images of well preserved natural landscapes or celebrating man’s ingenuity in building cities and roads. What would you say to those people who might point out that distant abstraction of your film when it comes to the environment?
Part of the intention of the film was to create a view of the world that was not human centric and did not place man at the centre of the Earth. In that sense the film is apolitical. I wanted to place humanity in the film but not to give us special status. Drone footage lends itself to this as it retains a distance from the subject matter.
Earth Symphony is not a political film. I was driven partially by the words of British philosopher John Gray who said, “Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.» His point is that we are animals. We sometimes think ourselves above and beyond the natural world but we are a part of it, a small part with a very big impact on the environment. The Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago and there have been several mass extinction events with in that time. The Earth’s environment is in a state of constant flux and we are causing a huge change in our environment, that change may result in our own diminishment or extinction but the Earth will continue on with or without us. I wanted to put humans in their proper place as a small part of a larger whole. There is beauty to a city just as there is beauty to a mountain. We are all contained upon this sphere and everything that goes on within it is a part of its whole. Many have viewed the film as having an environmental message and I happily endorse that reading as it is implied by the view of the earth as a whole and the implied fragility of our environment. The Earth is a beautiful place and deserves our respect and appreciation.
You have just released a film in the middle of a global pandemic. How much do you think the Covid-19 crisis will impact on the way people see and appreciate your film?
I completed the film almost simultaneously as the pandemic struck. I had intended to release the film to festivals with the hope of gaining a distributer. I put this on the back burner when the pandemic hit. But as my family and I isolated ourselves I felt a great yearning for the perspective the natural world gives us. I thought about all the people in their homes who might feel the same way. I thought that to people with the right sensibilities the film might give them both access to a view of the Earth that they can no longer access and allow a time of reflection. At the very least I hoped it might entertain them for 1hr 15mins. I thought the least I could do is allow people the chance to watch it for free. So I simply released it onto twitter where I feel it has been received and appreciated in the ay I intended it. I am very grateful to everyone who has taken to the time to watch the film and to pass on his or her feedback to me, which I’m happy to say, has been overwhelmingly positive.